Though federal judges tend to uphold a lot of unjust campus decisions in sex-assault cases, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama appointee, proved on December 23 that some campus procedures are just too outrageous to survive judicial review.
The judge’s due process ruling came in a case out of James Madison University. (You can read her opinion here.) After troubling appellate rulings in California (which approved a process one judge had compared to a kangaroo court) and in the 6th Circuit (where one judge suggested that military court martials represented an appropriate model for campus sexual assault cases), the Dillon ruling is important.
The James Madison case also illustrates the effects of an often- overlooked effect of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter—the requirement that colleges introduce allow accusers to appeal not-guilty findings. As in comparable cases at George Mason and the University of Michigan, at James Madison, this double-jeopardy principle created an additional layer of injustice. Indeed, in all other types of disciplinary cases at JMU, an accusing student can’t appeal a not-guilty finding.
Even in an environment that often features shaky claims, the JMU one was unusually weak: the accuser filed her claim (that she was too intoxicated to have consented) only after learning that the student she’d accused had moved on to another woman; the accuser offered varying dates for the alleged attack; and the accuser’s own roommate, who the accuser had called as one of her own witnesses, told the hearing panel that on the night of the incident, the accuser was “completely fine” and didn’t seem to be drunk.
Despite a hearing that hardly passed as a paragon of due process (the accused student was forced to present his defense before the accuser’s version was offered to the panel), the accused student was found not guilty.
But—thanks to the Dear Colleague letter’s change—the case wasn’t over. The accuser exercised her right to appeal the not-guilty finding, sending the case to a three-professor panel. And the appeals occurred amidst a campus frenzy over the issue of sexual assault. A few months earlier, OCR had commenced a Title IX investigation of the university. A student named Sarah Butters generated national controversy by claiming JMU had insufficiently punished the students who had raped her.
The fall 2014 semester had begun with an editorial from the student newspaper proclaiming that the university’s alleged softness on sexual assault was the issue that “had been on everyone’s mind for these past few months,” and indicated that “we cannot tolerate a culture of sexual assault at our school.” The editors indicated that “our goal is to give our readers the information necessary to empower them to stand up against sexual assault.” The editorial, signed by all members of the paper’s editorial team, did not mention due process as an issue of any concern.
Amidst this atmosphere, the university allowed the accuser to introduce three new pieces of evidence (each of which had been available to her at the time of her complaint) to the appeals panel.
First, she offered a report from a social worker asserting that she was prone to excessive intoxication when drinking because of medication she was taking. (This report had been introduced into the case file before the original panel made its decision, but was never shown to the accused student.)
Second, she produced a statement from a suitemate claiming that the roommate who testified against her had admitted to lying.
Third, she turned over a voicemail from what she claimed was the night of the incident in which she had discussed her intoxication. Sent, she wrote, right after she left the accused student’s residence, the voicemail “emphasizes that I was drunk and unable to give consent to sex.”
Armed with this “evidence” and the audio of the original hearing—but hearing no testimony from the parties, granting the original panel’s credibility determination no deference, and (it appears) using a definition of consent that differed from that in JMU’s own policy—the appeals panel ordered the accused student suspended for five-and-a-half years.
An e-mail sent to a JMU administrator suggested that the voicemail was critical in the outcome; a subsequent email amended the claim to the new witness statements as the key. Oddly, the panel did not issue a written explanation of why it overturned the original panel’s decision; it did not even indicate that it had found the accused student guilty. Its form only indicated that it had “increased” his (previously nonexistent) punishment.
The flawed procedures in this case yielded particularly flawed results.
First, according to subsequent testimony from members of the appeals panel, they credited the claim that the key exculpatory witness (the accuser’s roommate) had lied without ever giving her a chance to respond. Even more incredibly, under JMU policies, the accused student couldn’t ask the roommate to file a rebuttal statement with the appeals panel—because (since she was a witness called by the accuser in the original hearing) he was forbidden from contacting her.
Second, and in violation of JMU rules, the accused student never saw, at any stage of the process, the social worker’s statement. So he never had the chance to hire an expert of his own to rebut it.
Finally, the so-called ‘smoking gun’ voicemail was actually from the night before the incident. Indeed, its introduction suggested that the accuser might have tried to mislead the appeals panel—which the accused student could have pointed out if JMU had given him more than 24 hours to respond to this new “evidence” (which it sent to him in the middle of winter break).
Since he didn’t see the “evidence” in time, he thought he had no chance to impeach it. One of the appellate panelists, Education professor Dana Haraway, later testified that she considered the voicemail significant in her decision. She didn’t learn about the date error until the accused student’s lawyer deposed her in the due process lawsuit against JMU. It’s hard to imagine a more cavalier approach to one of her own institution’s student’s life and reputation. Professor Haraway did not respond to a request for comment.
All of this was too much for Judge Dillon. “No reasonable jury,” she concluded, “could find [the accused student] was given fundamentally fair process. Instead, the undisputed facts show that JMU denied [him] a ‘meaningful hearing.’”
The case, however, will only lurch along. The accused student’s life has been on hold since January 2015; he filed his lawsuit in May 2015. For the next two months, the two sides will present briefs discussing whether JMU should hold a new hearing. At best, he’ll be eligible to re-enroll in the fall 2017 semester (spring 2018 if JMU requests an additional hearing before Judge Dillon)—so would serve at least a five-semester suspension for an offense that appears never to have occurred, because of procedures that were fundamentally unfair.
Judge Dillon’s ruling addressed one other significant point. In 2015, Judge T.S. Ellis (in a factually dicey case out of George Mason) issued one of the most perceptive comments in any due process ruling about the effects of a guilty finding on the accused student. He noted that a university deeming a student a rapist would have enormous consequences on his future educational and earning opportunities—since he’d have no choice, as part of applying to a new school or to any job that required a background check, to produce educational documents showing the university judgment.
JMU’s lawyer denounced this decision, which he termed the “800-pound gorilla or the elephant in the room,” as “wrong” and a “mistake.” (You can read the hearing transcript here.) In JMU’s world, any student who wanted to conceal a wrongful finding of sexual assault could simply not produce his educational records. Judge Dillon rejected this suggestion as the false choice it was.